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October 21st, 2010:

Endorsement watch: Ellis and Whitmire

The Chron finally turns to legislative races by endorsing two Senate Democratic incumbents in a pair of lightly contested races.

[Sen. Rodney] Ellis, the longtime Democratic incumbent in Texas Senate District 13, has made his mark in many legislative areas, including education, the state budget process and the criminal justice arena. It is thanks to Ellis’ efforts, for example, that Harris County will soon have a public defender’s office. Access to higher education by low-income and minority Texans also has been widened thanks to the senator’s efforts. It is no exaggeration to observe that Texas has become a more welcoming and tolerant place because of Ellis’ efforts. It has.

[Sen. John] Whitmire, the Democratic incumbent in Texas Senate District 15, has been in the Senate for 27 years and his length of service has earned him the title “Dean of the Senate.” The Houston native, who first came to the Legislature as a Texas House member while still an undergraduate at the University of Houston in the early 1970s, has focused his energies on criminal justice, overseeing a rewrite of the state penal code in the 1990s. His deep knowledge of the criminal justice system is a resource that will be particularly valuable in dealing with the state’s daunting budget deficit.

It was a pleasure interviewing them as well, which you can listen to here for Ellis and here for Whitmire.

Judicial Q&A: Dennis Slate

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

My name is Dennis M. Slate. I grew up on the East side of Harris County in the Pasadena area. I went to college at Texas A&M University, on the GI Bill after having served 3 years on active duty as a medic in the Army. I attended law school at the University of Houston, also courtesy of the US Army. After trying my hand briefly at working for a civil law firm, I started my own firm in late 2001. I have practiced criminal defense, based out of my office in Deer Park, in courts all over Texas. I am running for Harris County Criminal Court at Law #13, as a Democrat.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Harris County Court at Law Number 13 is a criminal misdemeanor bench and a trial court. This court has jurisdiction to hear class A and class B misdemeanor cases. The most common of these are:

* D.W.I. (first and second offenses)
* Assault
* Thefts (value of $50 or more but less than $1500)
* Criminal Trespass
* Criminal Mischief (damage of $50 or more but less than $1500)
* Resisting and Evading Arrest (not in a vehicle)
* Possession of Marijuana (less than 4 ounces) and some dangerous drugs
* Failure to Identify (oneself to a police officer)

In addition to hearing these types of cases, the Court monitors probationers, sets the conditions for probation, and determines when those conditions have been violated and what the appropriate punishment is for the violation. The court also is tasked with granting occupational licenses, and ordering conditions for those licenses.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The previous judge of this court was retiring, and I had decided to run for judge because public service has been something I have taken great pride in since I enlisted in the Army at age 18. I have continued my service to this Country for over 19 years, even being activated in support of the Global War on Terror. I also currently serve the citizens of Houston and Pearland as a Municipal Judge. I feel that at this point in my career I have practiced law long enough to have the appropriate perspective and experience to make me a Judge that can listen and evaluate each case on its individual merits. I have learned from hearing cases in my current courts that, to each person that has been charged with an offense, their case is the most important one in the world, and I must give it my full attention. I do not believe this is being done at the Harris County Criminal Courthouse under the current slate of judges. Too often persons charged with offenses and also victims of these offenses are subjected to random and poorly thought out policies. These policies in the misdemeanor courts are resulting in many of the problems we are seeing in jail overcrowding and defendant recidivism. I would like to help get the Harris County Criminal Courts back to focusing on each individual case to ensure that justice is done for both victims and the accused.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced Criminal law in courts throughout Texas for going on 9 years now. I have practiced in front of good fair minded judges and some not so fair minded. I was nominated by Mayor Tom Reid of Pearland and Mayor Bill White of Houston and confirmed by both city councils to sit as an Associate Judge for those cities. I have presided over bench and jury trials, set bonds, magistrated defendants, presided over dispositive motion hearing, conducted arraignments, and I volunteer as an on-call judge for no refusal weekends to sign blood warrants in DWI cases. I have served the United States as an Army Reserve Officer for over 19 years. I am currently the Houston Selective Service Detachment Commander and have earned the rank of Major. I have the legal, judicial, and life experience to make me a fair, ethical, and qualified judge.

5. Why is this race important?

As Associate Judge for Houston and Pearland Municipal Courts, I can appreciate that many people would prefer not to deal with the legal system altogether. However, when it is you or your loved one that has a legal issue, suddenly the court system becomes very important. In the courtroom, you can only hope your Judge is competent in understanding the law and committed to applying it fairly based on the facts of each individual case. In addition, you want the Judge you stand before to be experienced and fair. As an American, you have the right to have your case heard in court without fear of ridicule. You have the right to a fair trial, to have your case before a judge that listens to you and embodies the principles of respect, fairness, and integrity.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am the only candidate in my race that routinely practices in the county criminal courts, and the only candidate that actually has JUDICIAL experience. I have the temperament to be fair to all litigants in this court and to ensure justice is done. I have campaigned on the platform of pushing the use of pre-trial release bonds to reduce the numbers of non-violent offenders wasting tax dollars awaiting trial in the Harris County jail, and for the creation of a public defender’s office to take all the bias out of selecting counsel for the indigent. I have been endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, several legal organizations of my peers, the Houston Professional Firefighters, and even the conservative P.O.L.I.C.E. Inc. I have the qualifications, energy and experience to take over this court and make it better for the citizens of Harris County from my first day on the bench.

If you would like to read more about me, go to

The DeLay trial finally gears up

OMG, I’m almost as excited about this as I am about the World Series.

Lawyers in the Tom DeLay conspiracy trial have subpoenaed a who’s who of witnesses, from associates of disgraced Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff to former Texas Speaker Tom Craddick, for the biggest political trial in Austin in years.

The witness list for Travis County prosecutors includes chief executives of companies indicted for donating corporate money, several state lawmakers, enough Beltway lobbyists to pack a Capitol hearing and associates that DeLay shared with Abramoff, a former D.C. powerbroker nicknamed “Casino Jack” who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials.

DeLay’s lawyers have countered with their own heavyweights: former Ambassador Tony Garza, Austin lobbyist Buddy Jones and Craddick, the politician who benefited the most from DeLay’s campaign efforts, which led to the charges that he conspired to launder corporate money — which is illegal in Texas campaigns — during the 2002 elections.

Jury selection begins Oct. 26, and testimony is expected to begin the following week.

There’s not enough popcorn in the world for this, my friends. I cannot wait.

County Judge race overview

Here’s the Chron overview of the race for Harris County Judge.

Incumbent Ed Emmett, a Republican, talks of double-tracking bridges for freight, attracting foreign investment to build toll roads, and planning commuter rail in such a way that it can be considered a precursor to high-speed rail and can qualify for federal funding.

“Our region’s future is tied directly to us becoming the gateway to North America,” Emmett said. As more international trade comes in ever-bigger ships from places such as India, Brazil and Africa, Emmett said, shippers will want to make one stop on this continent, and if Harris County wants to be that stop, it will need to invest in transportation and infrastructure.

Part of that investment may come at the toll plaza.

“I know people don’t like paying tolls, but they’d rather pay tolls and have roads to drive on than not have roads to drive on at all,” Emmett said.

Gordon Quan, a Democrat, said that as county judge he would promote greater foreign investment in Houston and Harris County through a visa program run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The program awards green cards, which confer lawful permanent residency, to immigrants who invest $1 million in a business that creates jobs for at least 10 U.S. workers. He is working on it in private practice but said he could continue working as the county judge to make the entire county a zone where indirect as well as direct jobs created would count, thereby making it a more attractive location for investors.

“It’s not green cards for sale. It’s creating jobs in America for American workers,” Quan said. “It’s economic input, the infusion of capital to create more jobs here.” The businesses and workers will pay property taxes that will help fund county government services, he said.

For more information, I refer you to my interviews with Gordon Quan and with Judge Emmett.

More on SHRP’s investment partner

I mentioned before that Sam Houston Race Park is getting an investor that will help them with the push to expand gambling in Texas. Here’s some more about the investor and the push.

The Philadelphia-area company [Penn National] is, at least, expert at shoehorning electronic gaming into existing race tracks. It has a glowing record of legislative persuasion in states where slots were illegal. The company also develops tracks for electronic gaming success, then operates the gaming well.

“This (50-50 venture) was more a business decision than anything else,” [SHRP CEO Shawn] Hurwitz said. “It demonstrated our fundamental belief that Texas should have and can have the best horse racing.”

He emphasized, “In our new partner, we have an organization with lots of experience in other environments. With authority, Penn National Gaming can tell us, ‘Here’s what worked here, and here’s what worked there. Here’s what people liked, and here’s what people didn’t like.’

“When Penn National looked at us, I think their people started to get very excited about coming into Texas. I think they also see opportunity to have the best in racing here.”

As always, there’s an annoying lack of anything specific. What do they think will work in Texas? I presume at this point it’s a lobbying strategy, since it’s a bit late in the game to try to swing elections. I don’t really expect them to spill their game plan to a reporter, but some clue of the general outline would be nice to know.

Many roadblocks and obstructions lie ahead. One committed foe will be other states’ gambling interests.

“If casinos or tracks near Texas borders have parking lots filled 80 or 90 percent with Texas license plates, you know they will work hard to keep those customers,” Hurwitz said.

The world’s third-largest casino is WinStar. It’s just inside Oklahoma, about 75 miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Casinos and racinos (horse tracks with gaming devices) could collapse without Texas revenue.

“Nevada will also be involved in the resistance,” Hurwitz said. “Texas is second to California in gaming at Nevada casinos.”

I assume we’re now talking about the battle that will come after the legislative victory, which is the battle to get all those Texans who cross into neighboring states for their gambling fix to stay at home and lose their money here. I note this just as a reminder that however much gambling money leaves the state, not all of it will come back. Be careful when reading projections about the size of the potential windfall.